Golf Games: The Games Within the Game

Are you and your foursome tired of playing the same game every time you hit the course? During a recent discussion following my Thursday night golf league, a friend of mine brought up the topic of finding new and different golf games.
Yes, golf is a game already, but the “games” I’m talking about are the games within the game. These are the ones that put money in your pocket, or take it out.
Most groups I play with seem to propose some kind of team game. Team skins, for example, is always popular. Other groups like to play individual games, with each man for himself. During a round at New Berlin Hills last weekend, for example, each player chipped in $20 to have each hole worth four dollars, plus an extra two dollars for closest to the hole on all par threes.
It can be fun to shake things up on occasion, so this article is meant to provide you with different ideas for games to try out in your future rounds.
Match Play
In match play, each competitor plays to win each individual hole. The lowest score on each hole wins, and ties are not counted. When one player has a lead of more holes than are left to play, he or she wins. For example, a four-hole lead with three to play results in a victory of “four and three.” Match play is especially exciting to watch with the pros, as players’ cumulative scores are inconsequential to the match’s results. This usually leads to a lot of daring and amazing, or oftentimes careless, shots in times of desperation.
Skins is the most popular game for threesomes and foursomes. Each hole is worth a specific point or dollar value, and the player [or team] with the lowest score on that hole wins that amount. The game is typically one-tie-all-tie, meaning if two players par the hole and the other two had triple bogeys, all players still tied. It is important to get consensus on several rules before starting: For individual and team skins, are tied holes carried over to the value of the next hole? For team skins, is the team losing after the sixteenth hole allowed to “push” the seventeenth and eighteenth holes, which either doubles the deficit or wipes it out?
Best Ball
Best ball is used often in team tournaments. In best ball, each team member plays their own ball all the time. The lowest individual score on the team is the only one used. This way, each team has one combined score.
Doubles is typically played with an aggregate score per team. It is most common to have the best player of the group teamed up with the worst, and the two in the middle teamed up together. With each hole given a value, cumulative scores are added together on each hole to have an overall score. For my Monday night golf league, for example: If my playing partner, Dan, has a four and I have a five, our doubles score is nine. If the other team has a combined score of ten, we win the hole. If the combined score is tied, the hole is pushed to the next.
Usually played for charity golf outings, a scramble is a team game where each golfer hits from the same location. The best tee shot (chosen by general consensus) is used, to start. All other players then pick up their ball and hit from the result of the best drive. Each team has one score per hole, and by using this best ball format rounds can be sped up considerably. Strategy is especially important in events where each player’s shot (usually tee shot) has to be used a minimum number of times.
As an aside, there is a real art to scramble play. It is important to keep players in a rotation where they are comfortable. It is common to find good golfers who are terrible best ball players, especially when there are other strong players in the group who they somehow start relying on and quit playing smart golf. Best ball is a great game to keep the expensive balls in your bag, as many swings inevitably come down to an all or nothing effort to somehow improve the team’s next position.
A variation on the scramble, a shamble uses the best tee shot for each team, but then has each player use their own ball from there on out. At the end of each hole, only the lowest score on the team is used.
There are also a number of variations on doubles. Vegas style, for example, puts the two players in a foursome who are furthest to the right following the tee shot as partners for that hole, and the two on the left are partnered likewise. Another way to decide on partners is commonly called “Round Robin.” In round robin, partners change teams every six holes, so that each player is partnered with each other player the same number of times. In both scenarios, golfers tally the number of teams they have been a part of that has won a hole.
Gruesomes is the opposite of two-man best ball. In gruesomes, each team is allowed to decide on the ball the other team must play off the tee. This is obviously never the ball in the middle of the fairway, leading oftentimes to some “gruesome” second shots.
Scotch/Alternating Shot
Another two-man game, scotch uses one ball for two players. The player who tees off is not the one who plays the second shot, and the putting is handled the same way. Each tee shot must be alternated, as well. As is the case in doubles, each team has just one score for each hole, and this game is typically seen in skins competitions.
Unlike most other golf games, the objective of Stableford is to accrue the highest score. Using point values for each hole, each player receives a specific number of points for their score. A double eagle (aka albatross, of which I’ve only witnessed one) receives five points, and an eagle receives four. A birdie receives three, par two, and a bogey one. Anything higher than one over par receives no points, although some will play a modified game that awards negative points for strokes over bogey or double bogey.
A game of strategy, wolf is one of the most popular four-player games in golf. Each player builds their own cumulative point total, but points are earned primarily in team games. Develop a wolf lineup by tossing tees (the player the tee is pointing to first goes first, etc.), playing rock/scissors/paper, or using any other method you prefer. The wolf always hits last from the tees, and has the task of choosing a playing partner for that hole, or else beating the field on his own. After the first player tees off, the wolf can choose him or pass. He can then only choose or pass on the second player, then the third. If he chooses to pass on the third, he must go on his own and beat each player in the field. Ties are wins for the non-selecting players, so the wolf needs to feel good about their picks. At the end of the round, the player with the most points wins. There is another version where the wolf plays first, which can take some of the pressure off of him in the selection process. Otherwise, for a good way of scoring:

Wolf wins with partner: 1 point each, other 2 players get 0 points
Wolf loses with partner: 0 points, other 2 players get 2 points each for beating wolf
Wolf ties with partner: 0 points for Wolf team, 1 point for opposing team for tying wolf
Wolf goes alone and wins: 3 points, other players get 0 points
Wolf goes alone and loses: 0 points, 2 points for each opposing player
Wolf goes alone and ties: 0 points, 1 point for each opposing player

Bingo Bango Bongo
I have never liked bingo bango bongo, because I feel that it usually just ends up rewarding bad shots. On each hole, though, there are three points to be won. The first point is given for the player who gets their ball on the green first (regardless of the number of shots it takes them). The second is awarded to the player who is closest to the pin from off the green, and the third is given to the player who makes their putt first. As with most games, each player keeps their own total and the highest cumulative number at the end wins.
Trash, also known as badges or animals, is typically played as an add-on game, where badges are awarded for specific unsavory shot results. A normal cost for each badge is a couple of bucks, but when added on to another game, like wolf or skins, can help tip the scales one way or the other. Typical badges that are played include:
  • Fish: The last player of the round to hit a ball in the water
  • Camel: The last player of the round to hit a ball into a sand trap. I also know people who call this a crab or “Hoff” (ie: David Hasselhoff)
  • Crab: The last player of the round to hit a ball from sand to sand (same or different bunkers)
  • Squirrel: The last player of the round to hit a tree
  • Snake: The last player of the round to three-putt
  • Hail: The last player of the round to hit a house
  • Stakes: The last player of the round to hit a ball out-of-bounds
  • Whiff: The last (hopefully only?) player of the round to miss the ball
As a side note, it can also be fun to have mid-way checkpoints for the player who holds a certain badge. For example, the player with the snake badge is held responsible for refreshments whenever the beverage cart is on site. Naming each bit of “trash” is up to you – have fun with it.
Nassau is best used for rounds that are being used for handicap purposes. In Nassau, there are three total bets: Lowest front nine score, lowest back  nine score, and lowest overall score. As with most games, a dollar or point value is assigned to each of these three accomplishments.
In derby, players are eliminated from winning if they have the highest score on any hole. The other three players are then left in competition, until one player is left who has not been eliminated. If two or more players have the low score, no one is eliminated. If the final hole is played and there are still two or more players yet to be eliminated, the winner is the player with the lowest overall score.
A game for three players, nine-point allows for a total point payout of nine on each hole. The player with the lowest score gets the highest payout, which is five. The second lowest score gets three points, while the third gets one. In the case of ties, the points are divied out differently, but always add up to nine. For example, if there are two players with a low score of par, they both receive four, and the other player receives one. If all three players tie, then each player receives three points for the hole.
Considered a camel above, sandies is a nice add-on game where players can bet the field any time their ball comes to rest in a sand trap. The bet for the player is that they will get up and down from the bunker, or else make par if from a fairway sand trap. If they do, they accrue a point. If they don’t, they lose a point to the rest of the field. Another variation of this game is barkies, which uses the same premise with shots that hit trees.
Similarly to sandies, armies can be called any time a drive is not in the fairway, but par must be achieved.
Diablo divides an eighteen hole round in to three unique round. Using match play, the first through sixth holes becomes an entirely new match from the seventh through twelfth, which is a separate match from the thirteenth through eighteenth. Carryovers are not recommended in diablo, although the decision is obviously left to the group.
Another game for two-player teams, alternating pairs have the opportunity to bid on how many strokes it will take them to finish the hole. Say you step up to the first hole at Brown Deer and are looking at a 461-yard par four, and your team is starting out the bidding. If you bid ten, you are saying that your team will finish out the hole in ten or less strokes. The opposing team then has the option of bidding lower (ie: nine or less strokes to finish the hole), accepting the bet, or doubling it.
Acey Deucey
In acey deucey, each hole has a big winner, a big loser and two players who come out even. The low score on the hole wins a point (or dollar, etc.) from the other three players, while the highest score on the hole loses a point to the rest of the players. The second and third place scorers on each hole stay even in the process.
In yardage, each hole is worth in pennies (or nickels, dimes, quarters, etc.) its yardage to the player who gets the lowest score. A 150-yard par three, for example, is worth $1.50, while a 575-yard par five is worth $5.75.
Criers and Whiners
Not to be used in rounds counting toward handicaps, criers and whiners allows a certain number of mulligans to be used by each player, depending on their handicap. With my thirteen-handicap, for example, I would be allowed one mulligan [more] than my opponent with a handicap of twelve. Consecutive mulligans are never allowed.
String Ball
Like criers and whiners, string ball allows a player with a higher handicap a foot (or other set measurement) of relief for each stroke of their handicap deficit. In this game, a thirteen-handicap would have six feet of cumulative relief for a round against a seven-handicap. Using this footage can allow the higher handicap to move a ball [further from the hole] from a sand trap or terrible lie, but he must then also cut off the measurement of relief from the round’s string.
The Minimal Game
I am not sure this game has a real name, so I will call it “minimal.” For all of us who have seen Tin Cup, you’re aware of this game and have probably told yourself that you will try it out some day. I never have, but have always been curious how it would play out. Whether for a single hole, or for an entire round, all players are allowed to choose a total of one to four clubs that they will only be able to use. Tin Cup won a U.S. Open qualifier with just a six-iron – what would your club(s) be?
Can you think of any good golf games I have missed? If so, please feel free to share and also let me know if you have come up with any good ones on your own!

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4 thoughts on “Golf Games: The Games Within the Game

  1. Great stuff! I usually default to a skins game or low-ball/low-total so there are a lot of great options here.

    If I'm playing in a twosome, there's a head-to-head game I like to play that I call The Horn Game. Each 3-hole stretch is a horn, and the low total score for that horn earns a point. I often add a twist that if you win a horn and are even par or better the points double. I s'pose there can be other twists to up the ante, such as awarding points for every stroke you beat the other player by per horn.

    The horn concept is a really good mindset when you're playing your own ball, as well. Players tend to dwell on their 9-hole or 18-hole scores (of which I am guilty) and a blowup stretch can ruin a round if you throw in the towel. But if you break your round into six 3-hole horns it makes it easier to brush off a bad stretch and start fresh with the next horn. My goal is to be even par on each horn. I'm satisfied with 1-over for a horn but when there are blowup stretches it's easy to press the reset button when I have a new horn to focus on.

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